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Word & Image: Elbert Charles Griffin, 59

Retired Army Master Sergeant, 1973-1991 (Injured May 15, 1979)


I was in Korea in 1975. I was a radio operator. Being in communications, you figure you're in the rear. … but you've got various levels of communication.

We were set up pretty much near the [demilitarized zone]. We had an observation outpost. All we had to do was collect information. The North Koreans were notorious for not honoring the cease fire and digging tunnels. … mainly to disrupt things in the [Republic of] South [Korea]. Korea is very hilly terrain and if you don't keep a lookout, things can slip past you.

[We] had about 14 men. … We ran wires to the field telephones. The guys [in the field] had to check in hourly.

This one particular guy didn't call in. So I got the corporal of the guard, sent two men out there tracing that line.

The guy who was out there had gone to sleep. You cat nap like that, it's fatal. It allows someone to creep up on you and get your number. Someone crept up behind him and garroted him with a piece of piano wire — the only thing that kept his head on was the spinal column.

The alarm went out. People scrambled to their … fighting positions. There's enemy in here, you assume they're hostile, one man is KIA — so what are you going to do? If you start opening up on somebody, then you might start a war.

As I was running to the … foxhole, a mortar round landed. We had a fuel center nearby; a bunch of gas cans chained together. There was a white flash, a piercing ringing in my ears and I knew the fire was burning up and I was trying to keep it up out of my face — and I was trying not to inhale.

Instinctively I tried to beat the flames. I gave in to a little panic. … But the first bullet stopped me. The second bullet put me on the ground and smothered the flames.

I had a ringing sensation in my ears. When I looked up, I could see in [a comrade's] face how bad I was. I stopped looking when I seen the skin hanging.

I kept trying to affect my Brooklyn accent, “Hey, I'm all right,” but I wasn't.

Initially when I got hurt — you know how you eat a chicken leg and you bite the crust and see the pink meat? When I got to the hospital, I knew it was bad when he lifted my chest [skin] off and threw it in the trash. I was trippin'.

It took 18 months to recover. I'm still not fully recovered.

Most of this is grafts [pulls off shirt to reveal an upper body and back that's mostly one large scar]. I was also burned on my neck and my fingers and the palm of my hands, back. All of that.

The skin graft, they usually take it off your buttock. I didn't want to wear my ass on my face. I told the man get it from [my thigh]. I couldn't wear a shirt for a year.

I guess the moral of that story was when I got home, I was in bad shape. Instead of giving up, I had to know what as a man, as a human being, I could do. I couldn't go out like that. So I went back in the Army.

My father had contact with racism. I really didn't, but I had experience where someone would say, “Man you're black and you're getting a handout.”

Well I ain't. When you was walking the street safe … it was me who stood at that wall and said they ain't going to pass. I ain't looking for no handout. I'm an American, you understand? I don't know how to be anything else.

I went back into the military. I got out in 1991.

When I was coming up, there was like 17 of us in New York and one would be like, I want to be a policeman, or I want to be this. You took those dreams and you incorporated them in your life.

When I got home after a long career because of perseverance, to find out this man is gone because of crack … or AIDS, that hurt. I didn't have nobody to share it with. All my friends were about done and used up.

It made me wonder, who the hell was I fighting for?

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